A Conversation with The Rides' Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd & Barry Goldberg
Mike Ragogna: Guys, what was the inspiration that brought all of you together?
Stephen Stills: Well, Barry and I got together and said, "Let's try and write a couple of blues songs over the weekend." It tuned out to be six, but then I went on the road for like a year so we forgot three of them. That was like right away. Then I wanted to do a blues album and I was whining to my manager who happens to be Barry's manager, and we're going, "Guitar players! Guitar players!" Then it turned out that I'd been playing with this kid for the Indianapolis Colts Superbowl parties for years and it was like, "Kenny the cool guy, the guitar player," and I hadn't put it together that he was Kenny Wayne Shepherd because guys with three names, it's like athletes referring to themselves in the third person. [laughs] So I'm on the phone with Elliot Roberts and he's like, "We have this guy named Kenny Wayne Shepherd, he says he knows you and he's big now and you should work with him." I went, "Who?" I swear, this was a true story, I was in a casino and I was facing the wall away from the window and I said, "I have no idea who you're talking about." I turned around and there was an eight-story marquee with his picture that said, "Friday, Saturday, Sunday--Kenny Wayne Shepherd," it all clicked and I went, "Oh, I'm a moron!"
MR: Maybe just pleasantly surprised. [laughs]
SS: And then they all came to my house, and the rest, as they say, is history. We had five or six songs right away and then Kenny had these great covers. His singing voice bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Elmore James as recorded in 1940.
MR: "Talk To Me Baby," yeah. And The Rides also recorded the Muddy Waters song, "Honeybee."
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I love Muddy Waters. When I was a kid one of my first concerts--
SS: You are a kid!
KWS: When I was a YOUNGER kid, when I was three years old, I saw Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. When I was thirteen years old, this guy that worked at my dad's radio station, he did the night shift and my dad had the morning show. I'd come to work with my dad at the radio station and I'd hang out there all morning until it was time for me to go to middle school. I'm like thirteen years old and then the guy who did the night shift would drive me to middle school. What my dad didn't know was as soon as we would get into the parking lot, he would throw me my dad's keys and I would drive to school with him in the passenger seat and I've got Muddy Waters blasting on the radio every single morning. I've always loved Muddy Waters. If I could take any guy's voice and implant it into my throat, I would want Muddy Waters' voice. I don't claim to sound anything like Muddy Waters, I appreciate them saying that I sound more like Elmore James, but I've always wanted to.
Barry Goldberg: It was just on the one song.
KWS: But I think it's great. I've always wanted to do that song.
SS: Even though you're half my age, literally, we grew up exactly the same way. We were listening to Muddy Waters and all of those great old blues records when we were at a very formative age. In my case, from eight to thirteen or so, me and my friend next door would tune in to WSMV in Nashville, Tennessee--fifty-thousand watts of solid power. On the late night special, they would have these singles they would send out really on the cheap and they would be fabulous combinations of records. That's what I grew up on, learning how to play like Jimmy Reed and listening to Howlin' Wolf and trying to figure out what he was saying, and the same with Robert Johnson. But the spirit of it and the feeling of it... It's uncanny that despite our ages, we grew up exactly the same way, chasing the blues like it was the most beautiful woman in the world.
MR: Nice line. So blues came to a lot of kids the way that rock 'n' roll came to a lot of kids. I wonder if rock 'n' roll might never have happened if blues had a stronger presence in this country at that time.
KWS: I have to say, even though it was before my time, blues, at one point, was what you would consider popular music. For lack of a better comparison, blues was the rap of its day. As big as rap is with the R&B community, that's how blues was back in the day. It was the hot thing. We're talking about a genre that is a hundred years old and is still relevant today.
SS: It was underground music. It helped us overcome racism in my generation. I'll never forget my reaction to it, being a child of the South at five years old. "What do you mean I can't play with that little boy?" That and the folk music of the thirties has grown us in ways that are very profound. That's probably the attraction for us, although God knows, Mozart moves me.
MR: Though this album is blues-based, you guys are being somewhat intellectual with your lyrics, I think more than the simplicity found in blues music.
SS: For that, I thank my English teacher and my grandfather who was a great writer and who read me poetry from when I was knee high to a grasshopper. Poetry and an elegant turn of phrase has always been part of my DNA.
MR: Especially when you look at something like "Wordgame." That's a loaded song.
BG: Yeah, that's your basic M79 right there.
MR: [laughs] Stephen and Barry, I think you guys were on a few of the same records back when. What was your first meeting way like?
SS: You know, what's funny is that we missed each other by a day, because I worked with Al Kooper and Harvey Brooks and Eddie Hoh because Mike Bloomfield had an anxiety attack and ran away and Barry went to chase him down. Al had a very limited budget, much like ours, only we had seven days and he had three. So I went, "I'll do it! How many guitar players down the list was I?" "Oh you were right at the top." "Okay, I'll come do it." So we did "Season Of The Witch" and the rest is history. It was my first gold record and I'm forever indebted to Al for thinking of me. But Barry and I did not meet, and we're part of this great record.
MR: I also want to ask you about a couple of covers on this album, like "Rockin' In The Free World" by Neil Young.
SS: It's a great song. It's never more than that, it was not some homage to Neil or anything. It was the end of the day and we said, "Let's cut this," and we blasted through it and I just ripped it. We wanted to get home so we left it. I didn't listen to the vocal, and I came back the next day and they played it for me. I said, "What did you guys do to my vocal, I sound thirty!" They said, "We didn't do anything. There's no nothing!" I said, "What on Earth did we do? Did I drink a cup of tea? What is it? Can I patent it? Steal it?"
KWS: Yeah, and we only did one take of that. That was it.
SS: There's an enormous mistake at the end that we'll show you.
MR: I imagine it came of so well from your being pals with Neil, right?
SS: Yeah, I had the chance to play with it time and time again on the tour, so I had it down. Then when listening to the record, I went, "Okay, don't play any fills. Just play straight," because the root itself is so cool and to sing the vocal is so much fun. That was it. The relationship with Neil had precious little to do with it other than the fact that it was just the genre we needed at that day at that time and we were trying desperately because we were running out of studio time trying to find things to do. So I said, "Let's try this" and boom! It just went through the wall.
MR: And with Iggy Pop's "Search And Destroy," I wouldn't think of it in this context, but you guys easily slip it into the bluesrock universe. That was a really clever spin on it.
SS: I was very resistant on that, I cannot tell a lie, and my daughter happened to be in the room shooting us and said, "Dad, dad, shut up. That's one of my favorite songs." She's twenty-five now and she's doing the photography. She's a college graduate, and when they speak, I listen, so Eleanor, thank you. When we started playing it and I got this Keith Richards lip in it, all of a sudden, it lifted up into this new universe and it's really cool and I can't wait to play it on stage except it's too short!
KWS: Same thing happened with you Barry, right, where your son was digging on the song?
BG: Oh yeah! Stephen and I looked at each other and I really wasn't too familiar with Iggy Pop.
SS: I didn't even know who wrote it! All I knew was the relationship of the changes was weird.
BG: It didn't feel right! It wasn't in the rock 'n' roll or blues vibe that we were doing. But as soon as we started playing it, we put our own stamp on it. My son, Stephen's daughter... Elliot's son was in there shooting a video and these kids came alive. Kenny loved it from the very beginning, he just put his stamp on it and blazed.
SS: And his voice just sounds great on it! I could kick myself for wasting so much time being like, "I don't know about this song," when we could have been working out ways to lengthen it. Because on stage, trust me, we're going to play it for about seven minutes.
BG: When the kids start digging it, we're like, "Oh wow, we might have something," and then Stephen and I started playing it and we felt like twenty and thirty again.
MR: Barry, do you fee like The Rides is in the same lineage as Electric Flag and the projects you've worked on over the years?
BG: Well it's related to that, being a combination of American music, blues and rock 'n' roll and all that, but this is more fun. It's a lot looser, it's not as intense. We don't have to get ready for Monterey Pop or anything.
SS: Everything was so heavy.
BG: "Let's do the horn arrangements and let's get migraine headaches over on it."
SS: When I get that heavy I turn to rust. Thank you, Woody Allen.
BG: We just want to rock 'n' roll together and play the blues and have a good time doing it. I think that the people will see that and, hopefully, they can groove with us, too.
KWS: Just a little side note, he's indicating that for the most part, this is a stress-free environment and we're just having fun. The whole point behind this was to make a record playing music that we enjoy and enjoy doing it together. But "Search And Destroy" is a perfect example. Considering the amount of talent that's involved here, everybody left their egos at the door. There were a few times where Stephen suggested something to me that was completely counterintuitive to what I would do if left to my own devices. He's like, "No, no, try it this way," and I was like, "Okay." "Search And Destroy" was an example of that, where at first, Stephen and Barry were both very resistant to it, but they walked out there and played the song anyway. Nobody was dictating anything, we were willing to entertain everybody's idea. The bottom line is when you do stuff like that, "What's the worst that can happen?" We might waste an hour on a song that doesn't make it onto the record, but sometimes magic happens, and I think that's what happened on that song.
SS: Do not mistake being over-resistant to just the fact that the truth of the matter is that Barry and I are actually grumpy old men. When your age is going to start with a seven really soon, you're allowed to be. [makes growling noises] We had children to grow out of that. The cantankerous moments in the studio is when Jerry [Harrison] would say, "Would you just do the song?" and he and I were grousing and the bass player is trying to write the chart down and he's fast. But it's like there's all this arguing going and suddenly somebody says, "Just play the song," and Kevin [McCormick] jumps right up, gets right in his face, and he's about a foot taller than this guy, and he says, "We will play it when we have had time for me to write it so I can play the correct changes, do you mind?" "Oh. Uh. Yes. Okay. Fine." And ten minutes later, the record was done.
MR: Yeah, and as you said earlier, this record was finished pretty quickly.
KWS: Yeah, in about a week. We had a self-imposed tight schedule. My wife and I were expecting our fourth baby. The whole time, I was expecting a phone call and to have to run out of the door at any moment. Thankfully, our child cooperated and came late so we were able to finish the whole album. Stephen also had some things going on and we were heading into the holiday season and we didn't want to go in and rent a studio out for three months and put everything under a microscope and start overthinking things. We wanted to go in and make an authentic recording the way records are supposed to be done, and that's what we did.
MR: Nice. Of course, you named the child Elmore or Muddy.
KWS: I think my daughter would have killed me if I would have named her Elmore or Muddy.
MR: [laughs] That's great, congratulations Kenny. Guys, what do you think of the state of blues these days?
SS: Well, it rests in the hands of John Mayer and Eric Clapton and the Surrey Trio... Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page... But there's a new generation coming along and there are a couple of kids that need a little more living experience before they're really going to get this, but there are some monsters out there and this genre is not going to go away. It's just too rooted in the American Psyche.
BG: I just did a show in Chicago with The Chicago Blues Reunion band with my friends Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop. Buddy Guy's protégé sat in, this thirteen-year old kid, Quinn Sullivan. We're sitting there playing "Sweet Home Chicago," and the kid was on fire. I looked over at him, a thirteen year-old kid, just blazing, playing the blues. I talked to him afterwards. I said, "Man, you haven't had time to have your heart broken yet. How do you do it?" "I just have a natural feeling for it." He loves the blues.
MR: Kenny, what do you think?
KWS: I feel like I'm on the front lines of the blues scene every day, and I'm part of that younger generation that's trying to do my part to keep it going and keep it relevant and keep contributing fresh music to the genre. What's interesting is that my career... I'm going on twenty years of my professional recording and performing career, and I'm thirty-six years old, but music is cyclical. If you've watched any genre of music that has any kind of staying power... Country music has these waves of huge popularity and then it subsides a bit. It's the same thing for certain kinds of rock and certainly for blues. You can look at it historically and see the peaks and the valleys. But the thing about the blues that is amazing--and I know this from my own experience--is that the fans of the blues are lifelong fans, just like the three of us when we were all young and we were affected by this music. It's still very endearing to us and we love it as much today as we did when we first heard it. That is the same for blues fans across the world and once you become a fan of the blues, you become a fan for life and they support you. Right now, I see a resurgence in popularity of the blues, especially overseas in Europe, but even here in the States. You can see it by the attendance of the shows and the kinds of albums that are coming out. There are me and my band, Jonny Lang, Joe Bonamossa, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi... There's no shortage of people from my generation that are contributing. But then, like Barry mentioned with Quinn Sullivan, there are many others that I've seen that are coming up and are going to do their part.
SS: When you get your foundation in blues or really true, free, national country, it evolves into other songs and popular and modern American music, but it's all got a bridge back there at the beginning of the country.
MR: Stephen, I would say there's virtually no difference in how you approach the material you're featured on in this album and what you recorded with Crosby, Stills & Nash or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I never thought of you in the blues world because you've always been genre-fied as that whole singer-songwriter, California rock thing. But when I listen to this album now, the blues seems so natural to you. But I think it's because it's really what you've been doing all along.
SS: Well, I don't know about that but I will tell you that I've learned a heck of a lot from Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and being with Barry is like putting on an old shoe because he and I write together like guys before Crosby, Stills & Nash, before I ever met the three. We just slip into a song and it's just graceful. There's no, "This is my part, this is my presence," it's just graceful and easy. I'd say, "Let me go polish these lyrics," and I'd go upstairs and sit at the typewriter and type them out and look for a nice turn of phrase. That's the one thing that we do the same as Crosby, Stills & Nash. We used to walk in there and write a little and then, "Oh, you know what? You could use that line there," "Oh, thank you." And you never wanted credit for it. There's a lot of that in Crosby, Stills & Nash.
KWS: You know what was cool about that whole songwriting experience? What was cool for me was like on "Mississippi Roadhouse," there's this guitar riff and it started where we were just jamming and I started playing this riff and Stephen was like, "I like that riff!" He honed in on what I was playing and actually when he played the riff, I liked the way that he played it better than how I played it. So actually what ended up as something that I started to play that he liked, he owned better than I did. Then I said, "You know what, you need to play that riff, because it sounds better when you play it, and I need to find something to play underneath that."
SS: Man, I can walk off with a badass riff like a thief in the night.
KWS: It was great! When I played it, it didn't sound right and when Stephen played it, it was great even though it was something that I was playing first.
SS: It's from being a drummer. It's a feel thing. It's the stuff you can't teach.
MR: At the end of the recording sessions with The Rides, and after hanging out together as well, do you guys feel like you came out of the other side pretty changed?
SS: The hanging out together after the sessions, that happens in the car on the way home to the children. We're the straightest band you ever saw.
MR: Do you feel like the process got you from A to Z? Did you reach a Z with this project where you feel like, "Wow, I wouldn't have gotten there if we hadn't all done this together?
KWS: Well, for me, absolutely. I hate to keep harping on the songwriting process, but "Don't Want Lies" is the most obvious example to me. It's obvious that none of this would've sounded the same if we hadn't done it together. That's just the obvious truth of the matter. But when we started writing that song, and I actually had that riff from a long time ago...
BG: It sounds just like a Stephen Stills riff from a long time ago.
KWS: Isn't that interesting? But like twelve years ago, I actually wrote lyrics and everything, and this was before the age of the iPhone where you can record things instantly. I lost the lyrics and vocals and all that stuff and I never forgot the riff and that was the first thing that I played for the guys where Stephen was like, "That right there, we're going to write that." But Stephen wrote this entire chorus and I sat back and I listened to him and he's singing this melody and the words weren't quite there yet but he had the melody. He's working it out and playing these chords and I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is absolutely incredible." It never would've ended up that way if we had not written this song together. Just to see that happen, I think the whole experience from A to Z, none of this would have wound up the same if we hadn't done this together. We're just very happy with the way this went down because nobody knew until we got together and started trying to write and record. We didn't know what was going to happen and the end result is really great.
SS: I hope I can bottle that because that is the essence of the difference between flattery and enthusiasm, and I've had to explain that to a few people.
MR: You guys are obviously going to go on the road, but are you going to take earlier material apart from The Rides into this act?
SS: I don't see how it's possible, but at the same time, it's going to be us doing it so it's going to sound different. When you're singing and there's a thing in your mind, you go, "I want to sing this like Dionne Warwick." But if you put that thought in your mind and it comes out as you doing that, it comes out as something altogether different. I've done that for all fifty years of my career. God, I hate saying that.
MR: [laughs] I have a traditional question I want to ask all three of you. What advice do you have for new artists?
KWS: I always give horribly cliché answers to questions like that, so you probably won't be impressed with my answer. But in all honesty, the thing that I have consistently done over the course of my career even when I was sixteen years old and signed my record deal and tried to make my first album is that I knew people were going to come at me trying to tell me what I needed to do and I was able from the very first day all the way up until now to stand my ground and do what I felt was right for my music and my career and not allow anybody to talk me into doing something otherwise. I'll listen to people's opinions and I'll take it into consideration and if they have a good point, I'll be the first to admit it. There's no ego or pride in my game, it's just that I'll do what I think is right. If you're going to be a new artist and you think you have a chance at being successful, you need to do what's right. Don't let anybody talk you into recording something you're not sure about because you might have a hit with it, and if you have a hit with it, you're going to be playing it the rest of your life so you'd better make sure you like it.
SS: And that is the epitome of the difference between a cliché and the profound.
BG: You really have to believe in yourself. You can't read what other people are going to think about you, what they think about your song. You pick people that you want to influence you, but you take that and you keep your own style and you develop your own sound and your style and you never give up and you believe in yourself. Never give up.
MR: Beautiful. Steve, what do you think?
SS: I think I said it, that cliché that he started with about standing your ground and what Barry said about being influenced by who you like being influenced by, that cliché is what binds these three people together.
MR: Any surprising things we should know about any of you that we don't know yet?
SS: How to choose the set list. Mouse races.
MR: Mouse races!
BG: You take twenty mice and you put them in a box with the titles of the songs and then you release them into a room with a little hole at the other end and then the order in which they pass through the finish line is the song list.
MR: You guys sound like you had so much fun that you could've kept going with this album, couldn't you.
BG: We already have a comedy album!
MR: [laughs] I appreciate all your time, thank you very much.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
SANDERS BOHLKE GETS "SERIOUS"
photo credit: Bradley Adair
According to Sanders Bohlke...
"The video was shot in Jackson, Mississippi, by a friend of mine, Robby Piantanida. It was amazing because we sort of had an idea and just shot what we could in an afternoon. The other basketball player, Frank, just happened to be at the park, so we asked him to be in it. A lot of credit goes to Azod Abedikichi, the editor, for taking this beautiful footage and really capturing the loneliness going on in the song."
A Conversation with John Waite
Mike Ragogna: All right, you have a new album, Live All Access. Can you tell me everything about it, leaving absolutely nothing out?
John Waite: [laughs] I could tell you a lot about it, but it's pretty simple. We got a new guitar player about eight months ago, Keri Kelli, and we started playing gigs. We didn't rehearse, we just ran through a couple of songs. Keri got the job, we said, "Meet you at the airport," and we started to play gigs. We were playing fairly small gigs, then we'd play pretty big gigs, private gigs, but we really kind of threw him in the deep end. After about two months, everything changed. Being in a three-piece band is a whole different world, and I love that. I want to keep it like that. It reminds me of all the bands that I love, from the periods where you didn't need to double-track anything or put synthesizers in. Everything I've done has been pretty much guitar-driven anyway, but there was a point where Keri just started to fly. He was playing all the right notes in the right places, but he would jam on, which is the whole point. He was that familiar. I felt suddenly very clearly that I had to get it down taped because the band was playing as a whole. The rhythm section was now playing like they were in Free or one of those great bands from the seventies, it was all locked, and I was singing better. I thought, "Why not record it?" You can always give it to radio for promotion and if you don't do something with it, put it on the end of an album. We hired a church in South Philly that's been turned into a recording studio called Philly Sound. It holds about four hundred people. We recorded two nights there, you could come for free; I bought three kegs of beer a night and we recorded it in two nights and we got a couple of shows and I started to mix it and realized halfway through that some of it wasn't what it could be, but some of it was absolutely great, you know? But it was so hot in there because it was so packed that some of the tuning was a bit weird. We hadn't quite found our footing, but we did get three great songs. For some reason, we got three great songs. Two months later, we went back on the road recording and we're on to play Manchester, New Hampshire, in this beautiful new theater, had a really bad sound check, but decided to record it anyway and we walked out and bang! It was one of those gigs that you just look back on and say, "I don't know how we did that, but it was one of the best gigs we ever played," and we've got it on tape. So it's not meant to be a greatest hits and it's not meant to be a piece of product. I'm not trying to sell you anything, I'm trying to share it with you. It's what we are and it's something I've been trying to get for a long time, it's pretty pure.
MR: As you mentioned earlier, this is the way rock was made. This was the way people were doing it before they were thinking over-consciously of making meticulous records.
JW: Yeah, I think rock went from, well London in the seventies where every band sounded different, from Free to The Small Faces to Humble Pie to Bad Company, The Faces, The Stones, The Who, and unbelievably gifted people making different music and they didn't have the luxury of recording onto tape, if you call that a luxury. What you saw was what you got. There was a tremendous sense of performance when you went to see them play live. The Who would put the beginning of "Baba O'Riley" through the speakers, which Townsend had sort of been a mad doctor somewhere and cooked up, and it made it fantastic. It was almost like mystical. But when synthesizers came into it, I think it took rock 'n' roll by the scruff of the neck and dragged it into the business world. I think rock 'n' roll, at the moment, there are some bands that are just tremendous, but there are a lot of the old guard just playing along, and I don't want to be part of that. I've got complete autonomy, really. I do what I want to do and what I want to do is play this kind of music. If you like, it that's great, and if you don't, there's always something else to listen to.
MR: When you guys went back to the basics, I bet there was a different flow of creativity.
JW: Yeah, it bounces off each of us almost literally. It's like there's a musical conversation going on that's really clear, there's nothing in the way. The guitar player has to stay up and cover his end of the stage as does the drums and the bass and the singer is in the middle and that's all there is. Everything's imperative. You can't glide, you can't duck and weave, you deliver. It's like looking somebody in the eyes and whether you're playing for ten thousand people or a hundred people in a small club, it's always been about that. This works. I'm very proud about it because it works. It's my ideal. The Babys are the absolute best at their most stripped down version. We got produced all sorts of different ways, but that's why we were successful live, because we could deliver live and we didn't need any real production. It kind of made me feel anti-production, and producers get in the way.
MR: And we're also probably in an era where things are the most produced they've ever been, with layering, pitch correction, every compression man can think of for every EQ bandwidth, all that.
JW: If you listen to Bad Company--not that I'm trying to liken myself to Bad Company--they're unique to themselves, but I mean that's about as blue collar and raw and unproduced as you can get--a three piece band and a singer. Led Zeppelin is the same thing. Great Stones records do occasionally have a keyboard in there but it's guitar-driven to the point where it's really just a guitarist playing into the rhythm and then the singer carrying the song. But I like that, I'm a purist, really. I don't know, all this other stuff just seems corporate, like it's not really music, it's something else...which is great, that's fine too. If you go into a bookshop and all the books were the same plot, you wouldn't be coming out with a book. You need to have all these choices. There's always been great art being made and art being made that's very simple and then you've got very complicated art being made. I just choose to do it the simplest way because it's the best way I know.
MR: Since we're also on the subject of this not being a "greatest hits" album, you do "Change" and "Head First," which are my favorites on the project. How did you come up with the track list?
JW: The best songs! The best songs! I tried to imagine if I was in the front row, or in the back of the hall at eighteen. I saw Free twice with different bass players, and I saw The Who. I saw bands that you can't really imagine. I saw them play live in my hometown. I imagined what it would be like to be stood there again and those bands would open with something you hardly knew, then play something they just made up, jam for half an hour and then play you a big hit. It became such an exchange with the audience, it was challenging. They were all defiant. All those bands were defiant. They hadn't time for being on Top of the Pops; that was sneered at. I was just going for what the best performances were. It wasn't like I was trying to be ornery or obscure. I want to reach you, but I want to reach you through music, not product, and I want it to be energy-driven. The songs that made the cut were the ones that were just raving. I think this version of "Evil" is probably better than the version that's on the Rough And Tumble album. And I think "If You Ever Get Lonely" is as good, if not better, more emotional than the original. So I know that I made the right choices. I have no doubts whatsoever about how good this record is. There isn't one thing I'd change about it.
MR: Is there a particular concert of your that still sticks out in your mind as an amazing moment in your life?
JW: Well you know, you have a lot of those. You have so many of those you just go, "Thank God." I mean, really. It depends on where your head is at the time. Some of the Unplugged dates, when it's just you and an acoustic guitar and somebody's knocking away at a box and we have the bass player up there and the guitar player playing electric but I'm playing acoustic and it's just a more intimate evening kind of thing. Sometimes in that, it just takes off. I can't really describe it, it happens a lot. I shoot for that. It's not like I go out there and I'm like, "Oh right, now I've got the first four bars, I'm going to do this!" I'm trying to take it like you take a jigsaw puzzle and throw it in the air and whatever comes down, comes down. I want every performance to be different. I'm not looking for consistency, I'm looking for greatness. I really want it to be exciting every night and different.
MR: And improvisation?
JW: Right! When you listen to "Mr. Wonderful" on the album, that melody didn't exist before that performance. And sometimes you get so lost in the song that you start making up different lyrics, because you're in a different headspace. There were a couple of times last year that made me laugh. I was in Philadelphia and I was so into singing "In Dreams" that I went completely blank and I kind of left the stage mentally. I was looking at Tim, but Tim's just laughing at me. I was singing the hell out of it, I was really lost in the song, and then the guitar solo came in and I was listening to it like I was in the audience. I was elsewhere and I forgot to come back in. If you can do that... It's about getting lost in it, you know? It's not knowing where you are after year one, two, three, four. You're supposed to be somewhere else but very present. I can't really describe it but it's a hell of a place to go and it's a great place to be.
MR: Do you have a favorite live album of all time?
JW: It would be Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! by The Rolling Stones because I think there's something about that. I think the first time I ever heard that record I was on LSD, so it was larger than life. "Midnight Rambler" off of that is unbelievable, it's so great. Also Free Live! There's a version of Free Live! on the box set, there's a version of "Mr. Big" that's even better than the official live release. But those two albums would be desert island discs.
MR: What are your thoughts about the height of celebrity you've reached?
JW: Well, I've been there a few times, and then you become like a legend. You get above it all and it's like you've become royalty in some way and your music speaks for itself. When I hit number one with "Missing You," I was in New York City. I'd been living on the West Side in this tiny crash pad and the little old ladies with their dogs and cats and I used to be friends with half the people who were selling you oranges and bottles of cough meds. I was a New Yorker, and then I was a New Yorker with a number one. I felt like a real success because people I had met on the way up were still going like, "Congratulations, man, that's great!" But beyond that, you walk into a club and you're meeting a lot of people you know who want to say hello to you and who want to sit next to you and who want to have their picture taken with you, then they want to come home with you. And that's great, depending on who it is, and it's a life that you lead when you're interested in seeing what everything's like, but I was already a New Yorker going into having a number one, so I was pretty worldly. But you know, it's superficiality, it's the complexion of something. There's a huge culture now behind music, even in country. There are country stations on TV, and it's like watching a game show. Somebody runs out in overalls and a pitchfork and starts singing about how they get up at five o'clock, but they don't! It's become very, very commercial, but there's still great country music being made somewhere. It's becoming more and more product. Everything is more product. I think celebrity is kind of interesting. If I walked into a small bar in New York City and saw an actor that I really liked and said, "Hey, how are you doing?" I'm the kind of guy that would sit there for three hours and drink martinis and talk about movies. But actually, going through the mill of trying to be interesting and hang out with celebrities, I treat everyone the same way. I can't really see the difference anymore. I've always done that and that's pretty much how you find me.
MR: Speaking of country, "If You Ever Get Lonely" recently has been a hit with Love And Theft. How do you feel about that?
JW: I'm kind of very taken. I had a country hit with Alison [Kraus] a couple of years ago with "Missing You," and then we did another tune called "Lay Down Beside Me." I love country music and I love bluegrass. There are people like Larry Sparks and Del McCoury that are up there with Elvis; they're just important to me. But a young country act took that song and they had a number one song last year. Obviously, with that being on this release there's the opportunity to have at least a top twenty success with version of here to get lonely, and because they were number one last year I guess there's a chance of it being number one in the country market, too. I watch it. I go online every morning and I look on iTunes and I sort of see where it is because it's a great song. And the video is very good. They kind of got it right and I just wish them the best. I hope people just go and listen to it.
MR: It always boils down to the song, doesn't it.
JW: Those songs you write on occasion that really just lay bare what needs to be said, they could be happy songs or sad songs or political songs, but they articulate. The Stones have that in spades, really. The Stones have an articulate mind and a rhythmic soul. They're like two things at once. When you get it right, you get it right. It's very powerful.
MR: What is your advice for new artists these days?
JW: Usually it's "get a lawyer" because it's funny. But it's not that funny because the simple lawyers that you get, you need a lawyer to watch them. I think if you love what you do, then you're blessed. I've made my way through my life, through all the highs and lows and the peaks and valleys and all that kind of stuff, but I've loved every minute of it because I loved what I did. I could sit there in the corner in a restaurant or in a coldwater apartment with a pen and pencil and write something down or I could read Walt Whitman and just be so turned on that I wrote something else. I could hear Bo Diddley and just go "Jesus Christ!" It's something that comes with an enormous amount of extras, being a musician. If you're paying attention, there's just a myriad of things that are going to come to you because of the music. Just love it. You don't have to do anything else. Just take your hands off the wheel. Don't listen to anybody else and follow your muse.
MR: You're also going to be touring to promote the live album, which is sort of synchronistic.
JW: Yeah. It's wild, we've been playing a lot of smaller places. The last album, Rough And Tumble, we got to number one on classic rock with the track "Rough And Tumble," which kind of blew my mind because I had no idea it was going to be released as a single. I had no clue, and then it went number ten, then seven, five, and then it went to number one and I'm looking at the competition and the competition was incredibly heavy yet it went to number one. But the fact was that we were going out and playing small clubs for peanuts, barely making a living and paying the band and the hotels and stuff, but we just went out like troubadours, just to play because we loved it so much. It was either stay at home or go out and play. At the end of the year, I'd made a small fortune, really, but I also paid it all back to the taxman and the American Express. That's how much it cost to get to those people, but every morning, we'd get up and go on some Clear Channel station, the biggest station in town, play live, knock people out, make them laugh and then we'd go straight to Fox TV and do Fox. That's how you get a number one single, but I can't do it for another year or two because we just couldn't make it work financially. So we've changed agents and we're just playing bigger places this year and hoping that's enough to bring it forward. It works great on a big stage and the band is the right band for a big stage now. We are in fact doing very well. The gigs that are booked are selling really well. I think we've got a sold-out gig next week in Ohio in an amphitheater. It's just one of those things; one minute you're thinking, "Is 'If You Ever Get Lonely' going to be a hit?" and the next minute it actually is and then the minute after, you're playing bigger places. It happens overnight.
MR: The obvious question now is when is the next Babys or Bad English reunion that includes you?
JW: Oh Jesus Christ! I have been in touch with Tony and Wally and I wish him the best, I got an email from him yesterday, there's nothing but best wishes for the Babys reunion and I hope they knock him dead and they have a great time and if any two people deserve to play together, it's Wally and Tony. They are really like an engine together and I think they've waited too long to do it. They should have done it twenty years ago. But God bless them. I would never do any kind of reunion. I said when I was in the band that I would never come back and do it after we called it a day. Finish when it's finished.
MR: Last question: Is there something we need to know about John Waite that we don't know yet?
JW: Apparently I'm a loner. I've been married and I've been engaged twice and I thought I was going to be surrounded by kids living on a farm somewhere, or at least I thought I might go back to University and write a book. But my life's been music and it's lead me down some different paths. I've got the life, I've got the exact opposite of the life that I thought I was going to get. So it's still interesting, every day is a new one. It's like a mind-blowing experience, I don't know what's coming next.
MR: What you described is not all that lonely.
JW: Oh, I'm absolutely surrounded! I'm in a pretty great place. I feel like you never stop growing, you know? To the last minute of your life, I think you're always learning something. A couple years ago, I discovered Bill Evans, the keyboard player, and I listen to a lot of Bill Evans, he's marvelous.
MR: Is jazz in your future?
JW: Well it occurs in "Mr. Wonderful," back to your question. "Mr. Wonderful" takes off into germanic theatre bebop jazz, and that's when you're taking off and you're going into some sort of place that you've never been before. But it's still rock! That's an interesting way to be going, but it was meant to be interesting when it was written. The melody goes completely off the wall every night. I try to take it as far out as I can. I don't know what I'm doing, actually, when I'm singing that song. It sings me.
MR: All right, I guess you've got things to do so I'll go away now.
JW: I'm doing my laundry, actually!
MR: Very important work. Cleanliness is next to godliness.
JW: I'm walking around in a pair of shorts! I've had a chest cold all week, I took a Z-Pak on Sunday and I'm still taking them, but yesterday I slept for like fourteen hours and I woke up about midnight, took a sleep tablet, went right back to sleep with another hit of penicillin and I woke up today feeling well for the first day in five days. So I'm pretty happy at the moment, but I thought, "Well, I'll do my laundry. Hey, I've got an interview! So I'll do my laundry and an interview."
MR: John, you're awesome, as always, I really appreciate your time and I do hope you get more than your fair share of laundry done today.
JW: Thank you. Cleanly put, my friend! Cleanly put.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
CAMERON McGILL GETS "AMERICAN HEALTH INSURANCE"
photo credit: Jonas Mason
According to Cameron McGill...
"'American Health Insurance' helped me set the tone for the album as a whole, especially the first line: 'I got health insurance that only works if I die, oh but what if I live?' It started as a bit of dark humor, but I quickly realized the song hinted at a bigger question about what people faced every day, and how they kept on against the juggernaut. I increasingly struggled to define my place in America, balancing the good and bad parts, the wonderful luck of it all, and the reconciliation of guilt, gratefulness and reckless ambition. I was focused on coming to an understanding of my responsibility to face this and to create art in the face of it. I wanted the new album to follow the artist who did so against the odds."
Gallows Etiquette will be released on October 15th.
09.15 Lakeview East Festival of the Arts , Chicago, IL
09.27 Velour, Provo, UT
09.30 Urban Lounge, Salt Lake City, UT
10.01 Walnut Room, Denver, CO
10.02 Bottleneck, Lawrence, KS
10.14 Schubas, Chicago, IL
10.19 Green Mill, Chicago, IL
10.28 Schubas, Chicago, IL
11.01 Kryptonite, Rockford, IL
11.02 Rigby, Madison, WI
11.07 Mike 'N Molly's,Champaign, IL
11.11 Schubas, Chicago, IL
11.23 Do 317 Lounge, Indianapolis, IN
11.25 Schubas, Chicago, IL